Design Matters with SETH

Published on 2019-07-06

THE ESSAY:

The cartoonist Seth can seem a daunting fellow: There’s the intensely serious gaze he often projects in photographs. The 1940s aesthetic he embraces in his daily personal fashion, from the ubiquitous snap-brim fedora to his overcoat and round glasses. The morose tone that often characterizes his work, and what that work says about the world around us—such as his latest release, a final edition of Clyde Fans, the tale of two brothers running an electric fan company at the dawn of the air conditioning age. 

Of course, beyond Seth, the entire genreof the graphic novel, and literary comics in particular, can seem a daunting universe to delve into. Where does one begin? What can one expect from the material? And where does one go from there? 

For Seth, at least, we’ve got you covered. As a complement to the latest episode ofDesign Matters, here is a primer on the genius cartoonists’ key works. 

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken: A Picture Novella By Seth

Let’s start at the beginning—in Seth’s comic universe dubbed Palookaville. The Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly began releasing the Palookaville comic in 1991, and It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weakencollects one of the best runs of the series—and it’s pure Seth, from the way he blends autobiography and fiction to his signature cartooning style emblematic of vintage New Yorkerartists … which is appropriate, given that the book’s plot focuses on the hunt for a lost New Yorker artist of yesteryear. 

Say the critics:“Seth’s art is perfect for the story—his drawings are clean and crisp, much like those of the gag cartoonist for whom he’s searching—and it matches his struggle to find order in a disorderly world. It’s Seth’s anachronistic characteristics and refusal to accept the ‘joys’ of modern life which make It'sa Good Lifeso fun to read.” —AV Club

Clyde Fans

Another creation of Palookaville, Seth’s latest release binds 20 years of serialized comics. Here, in what is arguably the author’s masterwork, the aforementioned brothers—who Seth has described as two sides of himself—navigate the death of their business and their inability to adapt to a world that is moving on beyond them.

Say the critics: “A tour de force that captures the strange sadness of nostalgia and how it betrays the past and makes the present unobtainable. Seth masterfully recreates the lives of two brothers―one too rough, the other too weak―by illuminating painfully bleak isolated moments in hotel rooms, coffee shops and highways. He also chronicles collections of tiny knick knacks and household objects in mundane montages that will break your heart with their beauty. The drawings are a feat of wonder, their composition built on the architectural blueprint of loneliness.” ―Heather O’Neill, author of The Lonely Hearts Hotel

Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World

Beyond the somber image that many have of Seth, Wimbledon Greenis a marvelous testament to his quirky, humorous, playful side—not to mention the numerous side projects that Seth has percolating at any given moment. Born of his sketchbooks and released as he was working on Clyde Fansand his massive Peanutsproject, this graphic novel documents the eponymous Green in an as-told-to format from those around him, likely offering insights into Seth’s own obsessions with collecting in the process.

Say the critics: “Free from the graphic atmospherics and demanding motifs of his more literary work, Seth is able to stretch out and create a world and a story that is light and funny while still deeply felt and finely crafted. Wimbledon Greenis an excellent comic romp, and will seem all too familiar to collectors and the people that love (or loath) them.” —Publishers Weekly

George Sprott: (1894-1975)

A bit of a balance between Palookaville and Wimbledon Green, Seth originally created this comic as a syndicated strip in The New York Times Magazine. Focused on the titular long-running television host and adventurer, the book is rich with explorations of character and identity. 

Say the critics:“Seth manages to make what is essentially the story of one man’s slow death into an often humorous rumination on the power of media, memory and loss.” —Publishers Weekly

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists 

In this, another “sketchbook story,” Seth takes his readers on a tour of the headquarters of The Great Northern Brotherhoodin Dominion—a fictive Canadian city that plays home to many of Seth’s works. As Drawn & Quarterly best explains it, “Whereas Wimbledon Green celebrated the comics collectors, The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists celebrates the cartoonists the comic collectors love.” And in those cartoonists you’ll find all the best, delightfully odd hallmarks of Seth’s characters, blending both the real and the imagined.

Say the critics: “In TheG.N.B. Double C., Seth pays homage to the nostalgic appeal and seemingly limitless potential of old comics, while trying to create his own testament to how much wonder can be contained within a nine-panel grid.”—AV Club

Vernacular Drawings

Finally, delve deeper down the rabbit hole with this giant cloth-bound volume, which exclusively features Seth’s art—in all its eclectic focus, from the glorious past to the questionable present. Removed from his words, it affords an entirely new lens on this most essential side of the creator. 

Say the critics:“Most of the illustrations in this sketchbook are purely anonymous people and places. Seth has used them to create his own alternate reality: an oddly beautiful, wistful world, perfectly preserved, cobbled from our collective pasts.” ―Detroit Metro Times


THE INTERVIEW:

SETH: 

It's funny, we're very concerned with authenticity in the culture and it's like you can fake things until they're authentic. It's like there's some core of reality about who you are. You can't seem to change it. It's something you're born with, nature or nurture, I'm not sure. But you can certainly layer stuff on top of that. 

Curtis Fox:
This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. On this episode, Debbie talks with Seth, the artist behind the book series Palookaville, about why his generation of cartoonists broke away from fantasy. 

SETH:
We all came from that world of reading Marvel comics or DC comics or whatever and we all wanted to get away from that. The most obvious thing to get away from that was real life. 

Curtis:
Here's Debbie. 

Debbie Millman:
Comics have such a simple little bag of tricks. Some tiny drawings in boxes, a few words contained in a bubble, a handful of symbols. Almost nothing to it. But the closer you look, the more you come to appreciate their almost endless possibilities. That was written by a comedian cartoonist who has been exploring those endless possibilities for decades in his graphic novels, his art and his design. His pen name is Seth, and you could say he's a cartoonists cartoonist because when you mention his name to fellow practitioners of the art, they swoon. 

Debbie:
In fact, he's here today because one of his super fans, the legendary Chip Kid, made sure I had him on the show. Seth, welcome to Design Matters. 

SETH:
Thank you. I didn't know Chip recommended me. That's nice of him. 

Debbie:
Oh yes, absolutely. I understand that you were born Gregory Gallant in 1962 in Clinton, Ontario. Could you remember a time before you could draw? 

SETH:
Well, that's kind of a tricky question because I don't remember a time before I could draw, but I do remember my first, maybe not my first drawing but there is one that's imprinted in my mind. When I was very young I remember, and this may be imprinted later ... [crosstalk 00:02:12]

Debbie:
We'll talk about memory. Absolutely. [crosstalk 00:02:15]

SETH:
Yeah, yeah. On the bottom of the coffee table in our living room I drew a little man and that was there for many years. That was drawn very early and even the pen I drew it in was jammed in where the leg meets the top. You know, even as a small child I can remember lying under the table and looking at that drawing for many years. I don't remember drawing, but that's very early I was starting to draw. I mean, I could draw that drawing right now if I had to. I remember it very well. 

Debbie:
It was a little man?

SETH:
A little man who had a nose on the side of his head and two eyes on the front. One arm from the shoulder and one from I guess the middle of the torso. 

Debbie:
Very impressionist. 

SETH:
Yes. 

Debbie:
Did anybody in your family know it was there? 

SETH:
Well, I imagine my mother must have known it was there although I can't remember having a conversation about it of any sort. That coffee table was there certainly until I left home at 18. We moved every year, so somebody was turning that coffee table over. 

Debbie:
I wonder where it is now? 

SETH:
Well, that's a good question. Don't get me depressed because I'm always wondering where old objects have gone. 

Debbie:
You and me, both. Seth, you were the youngest child in a large family and your siblings were gone by the time you came around. As you've said, "I grew up in a house that was filled with the remnants of an earlier family. My house was filled with photos of people and a life that was lived before me. That quality of lingering things from the past is one of the most essential elements of what my work's about."

Debbie:
Seth, did you ever long to have lived in that other family? 

SETH:
Actually, no. It's funny. My family had a slightly complicated history in that my parents had a terrible marriage. They really disliked each other. My mother had mental issues which came up around the time I was born. It was very distinctly two different era's. The era's of my brothers and sisters who grew up together was a volatile period with a lot of fighting between the parents. 

SETH:
Then in my period, it was a very strange insular world with me and my mother. My father wasn't around so much during that time and he was, he had some issues so I wasn't that unhappy when he wasn't around. It was a very quite kind of world that I shared with my mother. That meant I certainly was not longing for the more volatile times that I didn't know fully about at that age, but later I started to clue in. 

Debbie:
As for your home life, the Montreal Gazette wrote this about you: His dad would terrorize him and his mom and he, as always, looking for love on the home front in vain.

Debbie:
Seth, you've spoken before about your dad's temper and how you'd lay in your room with your transistor radio in your ear trying to drown out your parents fighting and how horrible this sound is of adults anger. That really stayed with me, that line. Did this in any way cause you to reflect more deeply on the kind of life you really wanted? 

SETH:
Well, you know, it's funny. I'm not sure that you make those kinds of decisions when you're young or even when you're a young adult. When things happen to you in life, you develop like sort of a defense mechanism. Certainly, I think I spent much of my young adult life in a kind of love seeking mode and also in a kind of people pleasing mode. Even though, if I were to be honest and we talked a long time about this, there was plenty of unpleasant behavior from me, as well. It doesn't sound like I was stepping out into the world to please everyone. I certainly wasn't. 

SETH:
That said, I sense in myself from that period I have a very strong fear of authoritarian behavior. I do tend to try to, I'm one of those people who when I see trouble coming I'm trying to put a damper on it constantly. I do think that eventually did lead me into a kind of life I'm in now which is rather away from the world and controllable. I don't think I planned that out. Now that I'm in my 50s, I talk to other people in my 50s, especially in the creative world and I say to like a musician, "Now that you're 50 do you like all this touring around or was that a decision you made when you were 20 and it hasn't panned out?" 

SETH:
I feel like the decisions I made when I was in my 20s that have led to this kind of isolated studio life actually were the best decisions I could have made. But, they're not the decisions I would have made if I'd known that then. Then, I would have been much more eager to have worked with people, to be out in a social kind of reality. Now, it's like I just think some weird circumstance occurred that it turned out right. 

Debbie:
When you say that you feel that your world is more controllable, in what way? 

SETH:
Well, I spend most of my time alone or with my wife. I live in the city of Guelph. I lived in Toronto for 20 years and when I moved to Guelph I didn't know anyone there and I met my wife there. It is a pretty small world I have. I spent either my time in the studio, which is a lot of time each day, and the time when I'm not in the studio is with her. Occasionally we see other people. We're not entirely on a desert island. But, there is a certainly quality that feels like it's a small world and that world has parameters to it that I'm very comfortable with. 

Debbie:
In the documentary that was made about you, a film called Seth's Dominion by Luc Chamberland, you described how to get your mom's attention. You'd wet your cheeks with spit and run inside your house after school and tell her people had been picking on you. 

SETH:
It's embarrassing to hear this stuff mentioned allowed, but it's certainly true. That's a memory very clear in my mind. I think I remember it because of the calculation of it. Even as a six year old or however young, maybe even a five year old back when I was doing that, I was very aware of that it was a little pathetic. Interesting thing is all this talk about my parents we're doing right now is everything is complicated. 

SETH:
Both my mother and my father, if I were to just describe them in certain terms, sounds quite damning, and yet I love them both incredibly and deeply and I miss them, both. Yet, my father's anger was really, he did terrorize us and my mother, because of her mental problems and the institutionalization she'd went under was very cold. Yet, I never doubted either of them love me and as a child I was exactly the kind of child who didn't feel ... I wasn't a neurotic child in that sense. Although the story of pretending to cry certainly sounds a little neurotic. 

Debbie:
Oh, I don't think so. I think that's very human. It's interesting because you've said that your childhood was this complex time period yet you think about it constantly and think about it with pleasure. 

SETH:
I do. 

Debbie:
Even the unpleasant stuff. Do you think that's synthesized happiness? Do you think that you've gotten over a lot of it? Tell me about what is pleasant about the thinking.

SETH:
One is I certainly have gotten over a lot of it. I literally have said like everyone is forgiven, including me. The funny thing about it is is that yes, I would not want to be a child again under any circumstances or a teenager or anything in the past. I'm the happiest I've ever been, now. That said, there's something about childhood that allows you to partition off the different areas of experience. I'm certainly not going back and revisiting in my mind the bad stuff. I'm thinking mostly about the good stuff. 

SETH:
A lot of the good stuff is kind of this little world of a bubble that I remember living in with my mother. That strange world of, 'cause my parents had no friends and no one ever visited us and we were constantly moving. The family joke was someone must have been chasing my father because we moved every year. 

Debbie:
Why did you move so often? 

SETH:
I have no idea. He was just uncomfortable. He was always dissatisfied with everything. Usually what that leads to is you move down in the world. You're not moving up. Everywhere you move is a little worse. Not always in a direct arc, but certainly all your possessions get wrecked when you're moving every year and there was a certain kind of increeping shabbiness in our life that I've been trying to avoid now. 

SETH:
The funny thing about all this was that funny little world of just me and mother in these kind of places that was kind of quiet, a lot of television, has like ingrained a kind of bubble experience for me that I try to recreate when I'm working. I like to be in that sort of sweet spot that's kind of separate from the world. In retrospect, it was kind of depressing except that I don't see it that way. I think of it in a very romanticized way. 

Debbie:
I want to talk a little bit about some of your early comic influences. I believe that you've been a fan of Charles Schulz work for about as long as you can remember. 

SETH:
Yeah, that's for sure. I mean, he would be the first artist I even recognized as an artist. We came from a very blue collar background so I wouldn't say there was a lot of art in my life as a young child. The three places where I saw art, with a small A, would be like the newspaper, the television, the newsstand. Maybe the library. In those places, like cartoons when you're a child, they speak to you. Schulz was different than the other strips on the page. 

SETH:
Besides the fact that it was a much better strip than everything on the page, something about it made me look to see who did it. That was the first time I think I ever actually thought about somebody who made something that I liked. I mean, this would be very, very young like six years old or something. I certainly wouldn't have stopped to read the credits at the end of a TV show and think about who the producer was. I remember looking in the last panel and thinking to myself, Schulz. Who is this German man who's drawing peanuts? It seemed strange to me. All I could think of was Sgt. Schulz from Hogan's Heroes. 

SETH:
The funny thing is that's the moment where I first thought to myself somebody does this. I don't think at that moment I decided to become a cartoonist, but that was the beginning of the process of recognizing that these things were created by people. 

Debbie:
Who is your favorite Peanuts character? 

SETH:
Well, it would be Linus for sure. 

Debbie:
Really? 

SETH:
Yeah. I used to have two very close cartooning friends. Chester Brown and Joe Matt. We would always do this thing because we were a really tight little trio. [crosstalk 00:12:24]

Debbie:
That'd be [inaudible 00:12:24] three. 

SETH:
That's right. We would do this thing where we'd say like in this grouping of characters who's who? It'd be like if it's Star Trek who's Captain Kirk? Who's Mr. Spock? Whatever. 

Debbie:
Who were you? 

SETH:
Oh, I was certainly Captain Kirk. Chester, who is the much smarter and more logical person was of course, Mr. Spock. Joe, who was irrational, was Bones McCoy. We do this with everything. Universal Monsters, whatever. With Peanuts, what was interesting about it is it was like when asked who you think you were and who you were I said I was Linus. They said, "No, you're Lucy." 

Debbie:
Oh, how fabulous. 

SETH:
Yeah, so, and it was true because I was certainly the aggressive ...

Debbie:
Football stealing ... 

SETH:
Yes, and very, like in our relationship, which was very determined by the way we dealt with each other, I was the mean one. I thought of myself as the sensitive one, but maybe that's the story of everybody's life. 

Debbie:
I know you used to draw your own Peanut strips and distribute them at school. When did you start drawing comics, like real comics? 

SETH:
I would say it would be about grade 7 or something. I wish I still had them because that was the literal period where you just made stuff up. You could draw a 50 page comic in a night because you weren't worried about what it looked like, you were just making it up panel by panel. I can still remember a very long space opera I wrote where it just was the kind of thing where every two or three pages the spaceship the guy was in blew up and then you'd just had to figure out where he was going in the next panel. It just went on and on and on and on. 

Debbie:
Was that cosmic comics? 

SETH:
Nope. This is way before that. 

Debbie:
Oh, okay. 

SETH:
When I did, you know, the funny thing is anytime you read kids comics like at that age where you just make stuff up it's so great because it's just pure imagination and it's very silly, usually. 

Debbie:
Well, you eventually established your own cosmic comics line, as a kid. You were drawing using mimeograph paper from your dad, I believe. 

SETH:
Yeah. 

Debbie:
You drew hundreds and hundreds of pages of comics from the time you were very young all the way through to art school. 

SETH:
That's right. 

Debbie:
You never really showed them to other kids and you only shared them with your mom who's support you needed and wanted. Why did you keep them so private? 

SETH:
Well, you know, it was a very different world in the mid 70s than it is now. 

Debbie:
We're contemporaries, by the way. Actually, I'm a little bit older than you are. 

SETH:
Oh yeah? Okay. Where were you from? 

Debbie:
I'm a native New Yorker. 

SETH:
Oh, okay. Very different, then. 

Debbie:
Born in Brooklyn. Sort of raised on Long Island. 

SETH:
I was a little small town hick with straw in my hair. That little world I lived in where our town was like I think four to five thousand people or something. In grade school, we moved there I think in grade four or something. You arrive and then within a very quick time people have you pegged who you are and then it's very hard to change that. By the time I got to high school, I was not the most popular kid in school, let's put it that way. 

Debbie:
I've read. 

SETH:
Yeah. Comic books, I mean I don't know that comic books were forbidden as you got older, but I just sensed that reading comic books wasn't going to make me more popular. I thought I will keep this to myself and I was pretty worried that people would find out I was reading comic books because I thought, you know, infantile. These are for kids. I think right now it's very, very different. You won't meet any 17 year old who'd be as ashamed of reading a super hero comic book as I was back then. I was very, very careful to not be caught buying them or any of that. [crosstalk 00:15:46]

Debbie:
You kept your drawing them a secret. 

SETH:
Absolutely. 

Debbie:
You kept reading and buying them a secret. 

SETH:
Yeah. 

Debbie:
That must have been an incredibly large burden to be carrying around considering how important it was to you. 

SETH:
Well, I didn't think of it in those terms. I just thought it was a huge inner world for me, and in retrospect I think that was good, too because there was something about building that inner world alone that made it mean more to me, now. It wasn't just a hobby and it wasn't just something, you know, I was talking to other kids about. It was an actual fantasy world to escape to. When you get home from high school I immediately dive into those comics and draw them all night. 

SETH:
When I look back on that experience, it was the process of putting it down on paper that was a way to actually enter into that world and for it to be satisfying and real in some way. You know that folk artist Henry Darger? 

Debbie:
Of course. 

SETH:
What almost strikes me about Darger more than the work itself is that that inner reality he had that he had to have to survive. So lonely, so desperate that he sat down and wrote, you know, I think the novel is like 10,000 or 50,000 pages. He just wrote every night. You know he never reread or edited or anything. Just another 10 pages, another 20 pages every night. That was his way to enter somewhere where he wasn't alone. I think of that as the true therapeutic nature of creating an inner world. It literally is a place to go to. But, you have to do something to get there. 

Debbie:
You have to make it. 

SETH:
Yeah, you have to make it. You can't just fantasize it. 

Debbie:
As your family was relocating, it gave you an opportunity for reinvention. I know that when you move to a bigger city you were looking to leave your old self behind. 

SETH:
Absolutely. 

Debbie:
Which old self? 

SETH:
Well, the teenage boy who was anxious and unsatisfied with who he was. I felt awkward like every teenager, I suppose, but it felt very heightened to me. I was very nervous as a teenager. It's funny, you know, those small towns it's like you get an idea in your head of who you are, it gets reinforced by everyone and you don't, you know, if I'd stayed there I don't know what would have become of me. It was going away to the big city of Toronto that allowed me to say like I can be a new person. 

Debbie:
You became a Punk. 

SETH:
I did. Not instantly. Within a year. 

Debbie:
You took on the complete Punk persona.

SETH:
Yes. 

Debbie:
You had spiky clothes, chains, the whole costume. You had the crazy hair, facial hair. Now, here you are sitting with me looking very mid century modern. You're wearing a very dapper suit. 

SETH:
Thank you. 

Debbie:
You came in wearing a fedora and holding a briefcase. Talk a little bit about what you wear and how you represent yourself and the whole notion of crafting a persona. 

SETH:
This was the great value of the Punk movement for me, is that it took what was an unformed idea of recreating myself and gave me an opportunity to find a group of people who were also engaged in that. There was a kind of collective encouragement to stake your own ground. You say I'm going to be a particular person and this was, I mean, there was certainly rules to Punk. You had [crosstalk 00:18:56]

Debbie:
There are rules to everything. Even mid century modern, included. 

SETH:
Yeah, I can remember even at the height of when I was a Punk feeling slightly pressured by the rules. I remember talking to another friend and saying, "Why is it I can have big green spikes on my head, but it wouldn't be cool if I grew them in a beard?" 

Debbie:
Right? 

SETH:
Back then it was like well, because facial hair was not cool for Punks. It was like but why is that a fact? Just the idea that there's always rules even to nonconformity. 

Debbie:
Absolutely. I was a hippie in college and I remember one time getting this sort of tinted rose water that I could use to put on my cheeks and my lips and was sort of secretly putting it on. One of my friends caught me and she's like, "Are you wearing makeup?" I was so ashamed. 

SETH:
That's funny. 

Debbie:
You decided to change your name to Seth around that time. 

SETH:
Yeah, that was a part of a whole rebranding. The truth is that ... [crosstalk 00:19:52]

Debbie:
Well, how much of you was manufactured then because I really see branding as manufactured meaning and I think that you're sort of the opposite of that in a lot of ways. 

SETH:
Well, it's funny, we're very concerned with authenticity in the culture and it's like you can fake things until they're authentic. It's like there's some core of reality that who you are. You can't seem to change it. It's something you're born with, nature or nurture, I'm not sure. You can certain layer stuff on top of that and even just as superficial as like what kind of clothes you wear, I have a giant fur coat that I wear. When I first bought it, because of course I love Edward Gorey with his giant fur coat. When I first bought it I remember the first day I went out with it I was like this is too much and I was very social conscious. 

SETH:
You know, after about a week it was like I didn't notice I was wearing a giant fur coat anymore. Only the other people notice. To think once we just have enough confidence that it's about what you want to do, this was the great thing about the Punk movement. It gave me the confidence to say what do you want? Then do it. I mean, how you dress isn't really that important except that it is an extension of everything that you're interested in. 

Debbie:
It's a projection of how you want people to perceive you. 

SETH:
Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative). But the truth is I want to do what I want to do. You negotiate how to do it in the world. 

Debbie:
You've said you chose the name Seth because you were looking for a pretentious scary name. I believe you also invented a last name. What was it? 

SETH:
No one will every know that name. 

Debbie:
Oh. 

SETH:
Although I do have, one of my friends knows it and he does hold it over my head sometimes. 

Debbie:
Really. 

SETH:
It's bad. 

Debbie:
Really? 

SETH:
Oh yeah, it's stupider than Seth. Believe me. 

Debbie:
You've also said I'd show you my tattoo before you'd tell anybody your last name. 

SETH:
Yes. I wouldn't discuss the tattoo, either. I hate tattooing and yet I have a tattoo. 

Debbie:
Well, can you at least give us a description of it and tell us where it is? 

SETH:
It's just a small little tattoo on my shoulder. When I was a little Punk it was like actually before the tattooing trend really got going. I remember [crosstalk 00:21:48]

Debbie:
It was subversive back then. 

SETH:
It was. You had to go into a place that was scary. 

Debbie:
Illegal. 

SETH:
Yep, yeah, and there were biker type guys in there. You know, they weren't that sympathetic toward little Punk Rockers. You were a little nervous about it. 

Debbie:
It's a little tattoo on your shoulder of what? 

SETH:
Of something that will be forgotten. 

Debbie:
Oh. 

SETH:
I thought of covering it up and getting something less stupid, but I think it's like a good reminder. I see it every once in a while and it takes me back. 

Debbie:
Fair enough. You attended the Ontario College of Art. 

SETH:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Debbie:
You said, "I entered school a hick, small town boy who wanted to draw super hero comics." 

SETH:
Absolutely. 

Debbie:
Did you have any other art school aspirations or were you that, that was it? You knew. 

SETH:
That was pretty well it. I mean, I went to art school because I didn't know what to do after school. I knew that I wasn't ready to just go to New York City and show up at Marvel Comics and show them a portfolio. My art work, in retrospect, wasn't very suitable to that kind of thing. In fact, when I went to art school, I'm jumping the gun here. I remember we had an assignment once to draw a party scene in one of my illustration classes or something. I put my drawing up on the board, which I thought was a very realistic drawing. Somebody in the class during the critique said, "That's a really smart idea to have done it as a cartoon." I thought to myself, it's a cartoon? Then I looked at it and I realized, "Yeah, I'm drawing in a complete cartoon style that I thought of as realism." 

SETH:
It wasn't even really that close to the super hero comic style because it was much cartoonier. 

Debbie:
More old school. 

SETH:
Yeah, it was probably more relatable to like New Yorker cartoons although without the finish or polish. 

Debbie:
You dropped out of college in your third year. You stated that you were more interested in taking drugs and screwing up. You go into detail how your school work declined terribly whenever you did it and you no longer had any idea what you were going to do art wise. This really surprised me given how disciplined you are today. When did that work ethic change? 

SETH:
Well, it changed when I decided to come back from that. It's interesting that like, when I was in art school I think that I went through a very short period of disillusionment. I wanted to be a cartoonist. I quickly saw by the second year of art school that there was really nothing in art school that was going to teach me that. I also felt out of touch with the other kinds of art they were teaching. I think I was a little too young to fully understand the sophistication of some of the stuff they were trying to teach me. 

SETH:
I remember in design class, for example, I literally just couldn't understand what they were teaching. They might as well have been teaching magic. 

Debbie:
What were they teaching you at that point that you didn't understand? Do you remember? 

SETH:
Well, they were trying to show you what a good design was and a bad design was. As simple as that. 

Debbie:
That's not simple. 

SETH:
Yeah, exactly. I remember looking at them and I was like I just don't have any criteria to make a judgment call. They'd say this is the good one and I'd be like well, I don't know why. I was connected to what was going on outside of school. At this point it was just drugs and going to nightclubs. But the thing was, okay, so I got out of art school. I quit. I dropped out in third year. 

SETH:
Then, I didn't think about art for about a year. Here I am, I haven't drawn anything in a year, I don't have any interest in drawing. Clearly, this was just a pipe dream. You've got to do the work if it's going to happen. I wasn't doing it. I'm not going to be a cartoonist. I thought I've always planned this since I was 10 years old or whatever and always believed it 100%. I thought, it's not going to happen. 

SETH:
Around that time I discovered underground comics and alternative comics and that kind of turned the door of what I was thinking. I started to produce a portfolio of that kind of work. That actually began the process of me heading back into being an actual artist. 

Debbie:
The underground cartoonists opened you up to the notion that comics could be art. 

SETH:
Yeah, it was a big revelation. It's funny, I think the thing was I felt like I had no other skills. As an artist, I didn't really. I wasn't very sophisticated in my thinking at this point so it wasn't like I thought well, maybe I'll be a sculptor. It was like comics or nothing. The comics had kind of fizzled for me. When I discovered first the work of Robert Crumb, and then second the work of The Hernandez Brothers. Those two works, first Crumb showing me that comics could pretty well be anything you want. Then, the Hernandez Brothers being just a couple of years older than me, I was like this is speaking directly to me and my generation. It was all about Punk Rockers in there. It was influenced by the cartoonists I grew up with like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and yet there was this totally contemporary hip vibe to it. Suddenly I was excited. 

Debbie:
When did you discover Art Spiegelman? 

SETH:
It would probably be, I bet you I discovered just about everybody in the next year. I started reading Raw pretty quickly and at that point Mouse was being serialized in Raw. I even wrote Art a letter I think within a year. I still have the reply. 

Debbie:
What did you write him and what did he write back?

SETH:
I wrote him probably a stupid letter that I don't know what was in the letter, thank God. 

Debbie:
Maybe he has it. 

SETH:
Yeah, maybe. I'm sure Art got a lot of letters. I think I basically told him that I probably get piled on the high praise. I probably said it was like reading Albert Camus or something. Something high. The truth was I just told him how affecting it was to me and how I was a young cartoonist. I wanted to do comics. He wrote back basically a very kind, polite letter. The kind of letter I've written a few times, now, which is just sort of straight encouragement. It doesn't matter, you know, when people are that young ... I didn't send him any work, thank God, but even when people send you their work even if it's terrible, that is no way to judge whether they're going to be good or not. 

Debbie:
Absolutely. 

SETH:
A lot of people who do terrible work when they're 21 are geniuses at 35. Just encourage them. 

Debbie:
In the mid 1980s you were brought on to draw the dystopian art deco comic series Mister X written by Paul Rivoche. 

SETH:
Actually, no. It was written by Dean Motter. 

Debbie:
Dean Motter? 

SETH:
Paul was the original artist who designed the whole series. 

Debbie:
Okay, I'm sorry about that. How did you get the commission? 

SETH:
It was kind of a complicated history to the early issues of that comic, but the Hernandez Brothers actually drew it just before me. They'd had some kind of dispute with the publisher and they left. Now my heroes at that point were the Hernandez Brothers and they were at the top of their early careers and I was coming on really early in my career and my work was very slipshod at this point. I mean I came in there, I was showing them some work, they needed an artist for Mister X. They were like, "Do you want to give it a try?" I was like, "Yes." 

SETH:
It was good that I did it. I mean, I can't look at those comic books anymore. They were so early in my career. Every issue it's like I look at them, if I were to look at them would be a huge jump in what I was learning and a huge jump back, each one, too, where you learn something and forget something. But, it was a good apprenticeship period for me. 

Debbie:
You eventually hated working on the series from what I understand. You found it so uninspiring. I believe that you were actually fired. Is that true? 

SETH:
I was actually fired. Although, I don't think it was for my lack of inspiration. I think I was fired because me and the publisher went from being quite chummy to being kind of like enemies by the end. I feel bad about it now because I think the publisher, Bill [Marks 00:28:54], he was actually, he treated me really well up until a certain point where our personalities sort of butted heads. Then I'm not sure whose fault it was. 

Debbie:
It was probably both. 

SETH:
Yes, I think so. We were both very aggressive in what we were doing. Anyhow, I was losing patience with working on the book, anyway. I knew when I started working there that I wanted to make my own comics, but I wouldn't have really known exactly what they were. I was really playing around at the beginning trying to figure out who I was. Even my drawing style I didn't know when I began that comic. It was working on that comic, I think, that sort of solidified the direction I went. That comic was all about early 20th century design. I went in there and I started paying a lot of attention to the Bauhaus. Started looking at the art deco illustrations of the 20s and 30s. The whole world of the international style. All that stuff. I think that really expanded my horizons and my drawing style became quite linear and simple. 

SETH:
But, during that same period I was also starting to read and really understand what was good that was going on in underground comics. Then I was reading Harvey Pekar, I was looking at Lynda Barry, Arts [Bigama 00:30:02], blah, blah, blah. By the time I got to where I had done six or seven issues I felt like that's not the kind of comics I wanted to do. I had a certain kind of noirish Sci Fi adventure thing. They were charming, but ultimately I wanted to do something with more meat on the bones. Quitting, or being fired, whichever it was, that was the right timing. 

Debbie:
At this point were you then consciously aware that you wanted to create comics differently than had ever been done before?

SETH:
No, that would be overstating it. What I wanted to do was I wanted to make comics in league with the ambitions of the other cartoonists I was recognizing appearing on the scene. The younger cartoonists coming up at that point, we all grew up in the late 60s and 70s. We grew up with a mishmash of pop culture stuff. Mad magazines, super hero comics, whatever. The undergrounds. But, I think that generation that I'm part of now, people like Dan Clouse or Peter Bagge or Chester Brown, I think we all thought we want to do adult comics. 

SETH:
I think as time went on, a kind of generalized aesthetics started to form. I think really the only aesthetic that you could say was common was that there was a literary ambition to it. To try and make something that was ... Like the undergrounds were very interesting, but they were mostly artist shock value. Like here's comic books meant for kids. Here's we're going to throw in a lot of sex and drugs and people are going to say, what? These are comic books. I think the big thing was can you make a long comic story and can you write it with more ambitions than just the usual comic book. 

Debbie:
How did you first meet Chris Oliveros, the publisher of Drawn and Quarterly? 

SETH:
Yeah, Drawn and Quarterly was literally like one magazine, I think they had one magazine published when I met Christ Oliveros. He'd started this magazine called Drawn and Quarterly, which is a terrible title. 

Debbie:
Oh, I love it. I actually love that title. 

SETH:
It's a great title if you ever put out a quarterly magazine, but I don't think that magazine even came out once quarterly. 

SETH:
Anyhow, I met Chris very early on. He just started publishing and I was just putting together the first issue of my comic, Palookaville. This was very shortly after the Mister X stuff. We met at, I think at a little comic convention in Toronto. I was thinking at shopping at two of the two major underground cartoon publishing companies, then, which would have been Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink Press. They've been around for a while and they publish the people I respected. 

SETH:
I ran into Chris and he was just really smart and really great and I said, "I'm working on a comic." He was like, "Would you be interested if I publish it?" He knew my work a little bit. Something just made me think like it was a smart move rather than going ... In retrospect, I don't know why. I mean, I probably should have gone to Fantagraphics but it was the right answer trusting Chris and we became friends. I felt like those early 10 years of Drawn and Quarterly were definitely like being part of some kind of artistic movement. 

Debbie:
Absolutely. The village voice eloquently describes Palookaville this way: Palookaville tells the story of what the past was and its ripe possibilities that were never born out. Seth, I want to talk with you a bit about memory. I already mentioned Luc Chamberlands wonderful documentary, Seth's Dominion. In that movie, you say this: Memory is a blueprint of sensation you have in your brain. This blueprint has to be studied when you go back to look at it. Much like composing a panel, it's like you're in the center of that blueprint. 

Debbie:
Seth, how much can you trust memory? 

SETH:
I don't think you can trust memory at all, to be perfectly honest. I'm dubious of every memory I have, although when talking to my wife about this recently she was like, "Well, maybe you should trust some of them. I mean, there is obvious memory." The truth is, I don't think memories are recordings. They are more like some complicated connection of several things that are happening at the same time. I think we tend to think of them as visual memories. We think of like oh, I remember being at the lake, and you see the lake. I think that obviously, it's at least 50% emotional memory, as well, connected with a bunch of other stuff, too. It's a very complex thing and it's like sometimes they're rich and sometimes they're not. Sometimes they're little, sometimes they're quite expansive. 

SETH:
Over time I think as you spend time with memory, if you think about it a lot, you recognize that A, it's easily pretty inaccurate. You encounter people who you talk to about your past together and you find out you've to the facts wrong. Or that complete things happen that you don't remember. You're like remember that trip we took, you and me in the car? They're like you mean you, me, Sally and Frank. I'm like what? They were there, too? It's like there's a million things like that. 

SETH:
I do think that as a register I'm not interested in accuracy. That's not what I'm interested in in memory. It's not whether or not the facts are correct. The point is why are they important to you? Why do you keep returning to the same memories? Why are you building little narratives out of them that you keep reshaping, reshuffling? That little narrative I told you about my mother and I and the little bubble world we lived in is a contemporary idea. Now, if you'd asked me at 25 about those experiences that would not be what I would talk about and I wouldn't even have been able to articulate that. Somewhere over the last 20 years I've refined those ideas. 

SETH:
I was thinking about this the other day. Maybe memory is an art form in itself? Maybe it's like there's somebody who's like the best rememberer in the planet but nobody knows it because you can't compare them. There seems to be like a skill, or a talent, or perhaps even something that you've refined over time of why you're doing this with your memories. What are you doing with them? Why are you shaping them in this way? I think that the very process of thinking about memory is probably what's more interesting to me than the idea of the memories themselves. 

Debbie:
The word nostalgia, or nostalgic, is sometimes used to refer to your work. You've said this about nostalgia: Nostalgia implies a kind of Hallmark card sentiment that there's a golden past that you're yearning for. There's lots of yearning in my work, but I don't think of it being that kind of nostalgia. 

Debbie:
How would you describe it? 

SETH:
Yeah, it's funny. Nostalgia has got a totally pejorative quality nowadays. 

Debbie:
It does. It's like the word interesting. 

SETH:
Yeah. That's true. I'm not sure that nostalgia had that same meaning back in 1930, or 1870, whatever, but right now, because we've been sold so much nostalgia and it's a commodity constantly being sold, that it's cheap. It feels superficial. It feels inauthentic and it feels kind of Hallmark card soppy. 

SETH:
I'm nostalgic for the past. We long for what we don't have, and so the past is gone and it disappears every day. When I think back to say the 1970s, I don't think to myself I'd love to return to the 1970s, but I do think there was a kind of a texture to the experience of being alive in that time that gets inside you and that texture becomes meaningful in some way. It's very easy for you to be moved by things that push the buttons of this old experience. 

SETH:
There's a reason why we get connected to objects and I think it's because they're part of another time. I do feel deep emotion about the idea of the past. But, I certainly don't have any illusions about it. 

Debbie:
Palookaville really put you on the map. You alongside with Chester Brown and Joe Matt, as you've mentioned, became known as the Toronto Three and you became famous for your semi autobiographical comics which you all frequently crossed over into each others. It sort of reminds me of the Chicago PD, Law & Order mashups. What drew you toward autobiography? 

SETH:
Well, I think it was because we all came from that world of reading Marvel comics or DC comics or whatever, and we all wanted to get away from that and we wanted to separate ourselves from it. The most obvious thing to get away from that was real life. To try and write the thing you knew best and that was your own life. I think there were a couple of really strong examples going on right then. Harvey Pekar and Lynda Barry, again. Even though Lynda was not writing autobiography, I've since learned, I mean, she just made that stuff up. It rang, it rang ...

Debbie:
If felt like it. 

SETH:
... like autobiography. Yeah, exactly. 

Debbie:
Especially if you were reading it as a woman of the same age. 

SETH:
Yeah, yeah and she was really tapping into like real life experience. I think that has a powerful shift is what happened to our whole generation. It's that move to try and write about real life. Because comics have very little of that. Even in the past when people tried to write about real events they tended to be like a biography comic of JFK or something. It wasn't really about day-to-day life. I wasn't trying to capture the mundane quality of life. For me, at least, that was what interested me the most. 

Debbie:
Your book It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken collects Palookaville issues four through nine and it was published, again, by Drawn and Quarterly. The book documents your hunt for the lost New Yorker Cartoonist Jack Kalo Calloway as the encyclopedia as comic book surmised. Astute readers deduced that Kalo never existed. That Seth created the drawings himself and that much of the main story was elaborate fiction presented as autobiography. However, the story is so convincing that many readers were surprised that it was actually not true. The narrative borrows heavily from Seth's own life, including his family and friends, but it is not as autobiographical. 

Debbie:
Seth, were you surprised that so many readers were surprised to learn that Kalo is not real? 

SETH:
Well, it's hard for me to remember exactly what I felt then. 

Debbie:
Of course, after what we just talked about. 

SETH:
But now, it's funny, I still encounter people who are like, "Oh, I just found out that wasn't true." It reminds me that I wasn't trying to create a hoax. The interesting thing was I didn't really care if people knew it was true or not, but I assumed they would believe me. Firstly, because I had been doing straight autobiography before that and secondly, it was a pre Internet era where you couldn't just look things up. I did encounter that maybe one person who went to the trouble back then to go to the library to find the specific issue of the New Yorker that Kalo was supposed to be in and then say he wasn't in there. I found the page that you've reproduced but you put a fake cartoon there. 

Debbie:
Scandal. 

SETH:
Yep. I was impressed that somebody had the energy. Nowadays you'd just Google it up and be like oh, it's not true. 

Debbie:
That's a great story. A fictional story with a touch of autobiographical information that's not autobiographical. 

SETH:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). The funny thing was it wasn't meant to be a hoax, like I said. 

Debbie:
Right. 

SETH:
It was meant ... In the first few comics I did that were autobiographical when I finished them and saw them in print I thought there's something wrong with them. They're fine, but they felt like anecdotes. I thought, I want to try to use the comics medium to tell smaller things and then I was very interested in the New Yorker at that point and studying all the old cartoonists. I thought, I'm looking around for information I thought I should just make up an artist. That will give me a frame work to build a story on with a lot of little stuff. If I use myself, though, it will make it more convincing. People will just, they won't think of it as a fiction piece, they'll just think it's real. That will allow them to invest in it in a different way. 

Debbie:
Didn't your mother come up with the line it's a good life if we don't weaken it? Not come up with it, didn't she say that to you as you were growing up? 

SETH:
Yeah, always, always. Actually, she said it's a great life if you don't weaken it. For some reason, at that point I just wasn't willing to invest that much belief in it. 

Debbie:
Make it a little bit more attainable? 

SETH:
Yeah, I took it down a notch. 

Debbie:
You said this about the genre of comics: There's something very lonely about the stillness of a comic book page. That austere stacked grid of boxes, the little people trapped in time. I actually think it is better suited for portraying the inner life of a person than the sort of big blown world of fantasy. 

Debbie:
Was that what you were trying to begin to experiment with? With it's a good life if you don't weaken it? 

SETH:
It was. Yeah, I mean I wouldn't have known exactly what I was thinking when I started it as well as I do now, but I do know that my comics back then, and this is another big change in the world. The one thing I said about comic books when I was growing up is that it was the one place where you could tell fantasy convincingly because films couldn't do it. The special effects were too primitive, it was too expensive, whatever. 

SETH:
Now, that idea has been exploded. The bigger thing was I thought I don't really think that's true. I mean, sure, they do an effective job of showing super man flying around but the comics medium itself which is so small and intimate is actually a very good medium for having an interior kind of experience. You can really only experience the comic story telling in your head. You can't really read a comic book allowed. It's always weird. You're like in panel one this guy says this. Then this person says this. It only really works when you read it and it's only in your brain that it comes together. 

SETH:
There's something about that interior experience that works very well for a kind of direct communication from a character to a reader. 

Debbie:
We talked about impressionism before. That was actually something that I "borrowed" from you. You've equated cartooning to what the impressionist painters were doing in art that you're not aiming for the detail so much as the overall feeling. 

SETH:
Exactly. 

Debbie:
How is this best created? How much do you have to decide to leave out in order to still be able to effectively tell the story? 

SETH:
Well, it's always a negotiation with anything. I mean, part of it is simply just making the comics and you learn how to best transmit a certain kind of experience to the reader. A lot of it is about creating, I think, for me, I'm working with very simple forms. There's a kind of symbolism in the way you draw and how you arrange things on the page that is, it's got a little bit of magic to it that's hard to put down in words. 

SETH:
A lot of it is, is you're stimulating other people's experience and memory. It's like when I draw a picture of a house, it is a house, of course. But it's a simplified thing. You can't really capture the detail of real life experience in the drawing. Everyone will plug in their own emotions into these drawings there. Very much like the same way that if I write R E D for red, you will picture the color red in your brain. The drawing of a house, or a person walking down the street that's simplified will bring forward those same richer emotions experiences. 

SETH:
I mean, I can't draw a dirty sink with any kind of convincing verisimilitude. 

Debbie:
Right. 

SETH:
Because the drawings are too simple. It's like and if you were to increase the drawing where you see comics where they're super rendered, somehow or other that kills it. It's like suddenly the drawings drop dead. There's like kind of a vibrancy and a language of comics that depends, at least in my opinion, on a kind of simplicity of mind. Much like Japanese drawings. Just like those, there's a certain communication between the hand and the reader that is essential. 

Debbie:
You said that there's something about the very simple understated nature of how comics are created with little bubbles that form in your brain. How does that change when comics are turned into movies? 

SETH:
Different medium. The magic of the comic disappears the minute you take it away from that printed form. Or, I suppose it could be on the Internet, but when it's flat and unmoving, the minute you add anything to it somehow it starts to fall apart. A little bit of sound, even just like a hand moving, see this occasionally somebody put a little bit of movement in there. Something about that seems to kill it. I do love, you know, I like the cartoons they made of my work in the documentary. I was very impressed with them. But of course, those weren't comics. 

Debbie:
In the glossary section of It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken you state this about Marvel comics: Back in the 1960s, there was a wonderfully fun line of comic books, especially the Kirby and Ditko stuff. Now, it's a hateful media conglomerate that popularizes bad drawing. 

Debbie:
You wrote this in 1996. Do you still feel this way? 

SETH:
It's funny, you know, I was going to say I wonder what I wrote? I would have been particularly aggressive towards those comics at that point because that's where I was really trying to put that behind me fully. You know what? I think maybe I do still agree with that. I certainly agree with that first part. The Marvel comics in the 1960s was a great comic book company. I still own a lot of those comics and I look at them frequently. They are very warm and funny and they're full of a kind of like boys club fun to them that really it's exciting. 

SETH:
I don't know if I think they're a hateful media conglomerate anymore because maybe I've just sort of lost the passion to hate media conglomerates. They're just another one. 

Debbie:
Well, you know, I have to ask you. What did you think of the 23 film ark of the recent Avengers series? 

SETH:
Well, I haven't seen the last couple of them. 

Debbie:
You haven't seen Endgame or Infinity War? 

SETH:
No, I've seen several of the movies over the years on airplanes. That's where I always watch them as a guilty pleasure because that's somewhere I can sit down and watch and not really pay a lot of attention. I have been impressed with what Marvel has done with those films because I think they've done a very interesting thing, which I would have thought could never happen and that they built them one by one into a big sequence and set things up. 

SETH:
It's the kind of thing that comic book fans like really nerdy comic book fans always said, "Well, you've got to do it this way. You can't just have the Avengers. First you've got to do Thor," you know? Set it up. I'm like they actually did that and it paid off and it's turned into a hugely successful thing. I must admit, I think those films have some charm. They have humor in them which is why I don't really, I've never liked any of the other super hero films before. They were always so boringly serious. 

Debbie:
Yeah, I like the tongue in cheek nature of some of the characters and quite a lot of the dialogue. 

SETH:
Yeah, yeah. I'm no expert on it but I think they work. 

Debbie:
You've said that for some time you've felt a connection between comics and poetry and go on to declare that there is an obvious connection to anyone who has ever sat down and tried to write a comic strip. I believe that this idea first occurred to you in the late 80s when you were studying Charles Schulz's Peanut strips and suddenly it seemed so clear that his four panel set up was just like reading haiku. 

SETH:
That's pretty true, and I think that idea has gone on to become completely a cliché. I'm not sure, I'd like to think I invented that idea, but I don't know. Maybe I picked it up from somewhere, but it's true. I mean, in my sketch books just recently I was drawing some haiku's as comic strips. There is a pattern to them that is completely comparable to how you set up a straightforward four panel comic strip. 

Debbie:
I think there's something very single minded and still about haiku. 

SETH:
Yes. 

Debbie:
I think that there's that same depth of quality in your work, as well. 

SETH:
Well, that's very kind. I do know that I think poetry is similar to comics because for one thing, there's a lot of compression in the language. Comics are very much about compressing language and how to tell what you're telling without being overly verbose, and it's also about a certain kind of layering of imagery. Like poets make images. They stack images on top of each other much in the way you construct a comic story. 

Debbie:
Let's talk about your considerable Peanuts work. You spent more than a decade working on what has been dubbed the most ambitious publishing project in the history of the American comic strip, Fantagraphics 26 volume collection of Charles Schulz's The Complete Peanuts. You've said that each volume would take you about a month to do. While you were doing it you were producing them at a rate of about two per year. 

SETH:
Yeah. 

Debbie:
You got the 18,000 strips that were created over 50 years into the books and completed the series about two years ago. You won an Eisner for publication design. The project won a number of other Eisner's and a Harvey aware. Are you as comfortable as a designer as you are a cartoonist? 

SETH:
Increasingly. Not always. I mean, I think I've grown into the role. I think that initially I was only thinking about design in the bigger sense because I was thinking of how to control my own work and how to present it and how important it was becoming with comics as being published as books that you wanted to really know what you were doing. 

SETH:
But increasingly, as I've become very, very interested in design, I love designing books. [crosstalk 00:50:52]

Debbie:
Well, you've designed all of your own books. 

SETH:
Yeah, yeah. 

Debbie:
The 26 books of the Peanut Series. 

SETH:
Yeah, I've actually designed a lot of books by this point and I feel pretty comfortable with it. Of course, it's important that you be interested in what you're designing. I'm not sure I'd be such a great designer on certain projects because I do tend to be a bit of a dictator. I like it to be my way. That was one of the great powers of working on Peanuts book is that literally, they just let me do what I want with that series, which kind of blows my mind. It's a huge media company with millions of dollars, billions of dollars and they let me get away for 12 years designing those books exactly as I liked with I don't even think a single request to change anything. 

Debbie:
That is pretty perfect, I have to say, as the owner of several. 

SETH:
Well thank you. 

Debbie:
I want to discuss Clyde Fans. The saga tells the story of two brothers in the electric fan business who live at the dawn of the age of the air conditioner. It began as a serial in Palookaville. Did this story reflect your feelings on the modern world at all? 

SETH:
Well, mostly I think it was actually a metaphor for comics when I first started it. Here were two guys who were in the field of electric fans and they had not been paying attention to the changes of the world and now they were like on the downturn and heading towards oblivion. That's pretty much what a cartoonist felt like in 1998, whatever. Comics legitimately felt like they were over at that point. 

SETH:
It's funny, because when I was a teenager and wanted to become a cartoonist I thought they were a mass medium, but I didn't realize they were heading out. By the time the 90s came along and I was working as a cartoonist it was entirely an art medium, and that looked like it was dying, too. Publishers were starting to go out of business. That really seemed the end. 

SETH:
Strangely, I don't know what happened exactly but within the next few years the graphic novel kind of caught on and the comics industry was saved. 

Debbie:
I'm surprised to hear you use those words; graphic novel. You hate that term. You find it pretentious and horrible. 

SETH:
I have come to terms. 

Debbie:
Oh, you've come to terms with that. 

SETH:
I had to. I had to. 

Debbie:
Oh, it's official. 

SETH:
No, I gave up. It's funny, it's interesting, yeah, you're right I hated the term. I thought it was a terribly pretentious stupid word, or term, but the thing is at some point it made my life easier because real people know what a graphic novel is. In my early days when I was a cartoonist, people would say, "What do you do for a living?" I'd say, "I'm a cartoonist." They'd say, "Oh, so you make cartoons. Animated cartoons." I'm like, "No, no, no. I mean like I'm a comic book artist." Then they'd say, "Oh, so what super heroes do you draw?" I'm like, "No, no, not that stuff." They'd say, "So you're in the newspaper?" 

SETH:
It's like once you've had this conversation a few times ...

Debbie:
I know, I know. 

SETH:
Now I just say, people say, "What do you do for a living?" I say, "Oh, I do graphic novels." Everybody knows what a graphic novel is now. 

Debbie:
Well, speaking of graphic novels, Drawn and Quarterly recently just collected all of Clyde Fans into a final edition in a beautiful hardbound slip case. You designed two covers based on the vacuum cleaner supply boxes. You figured it would take about five years to complete this saga and it took 20. 

SETH:
Yeah, it did. 

Debbie:
Given your notions of the past how do you regard this ending? 

SETH:
Well, you know, to be perfectly honest it's not as meaningful to me as people expect. When I was working on the final ... You know, I was happy to be done. When I was working on the final design of the book my production artist at D&Q, Tracy, she kept saying things to me like don't you worry, we're going to make your life's work. We're going to take good care of it. I was thinking I'm not as connected to this as you think. 

Debbie:
Oh, it's so precious. I took it out and I gingerly opened the cover. Just looking at it and feeling it it's such a momentous defining moment. [crosstalk 00:54:35]

SETH:
Well, it was good when it was done. I was happy. There have been three or four moments it was done. There was the moment I finally finished the story. People were like, "How do you feel?" I had published that in Palookaville, the final chapter. People were how do you feel that it's done? It's like well, it's not really done. I still have to make the book. To make the book I had to spend several months fixing everything up and then doing all the design work and then that was done. You know, proofs and you go through all that. 

SETH:
Finally, there was a point where I was like it's done. I will never have to draw these characters again or have anything to do with them. It felt good because when you've got a 20 year long project you're working on, there comes a point where you feel this has gone on way too long. You're afraid you're going to die before it finishes or you're afraid you'll never finish it that you'll just wimp out at some point. [crosstalk 00:55:26]

Debbie:
Sort of like the Die Hard movies. 

SETH:
Yes. Ultimately, I was just like I made it to the end. I'm done. It's career defining for me but in a strange way I've been moving on for years ready to do the next book. 

Debbie:
Abe and Simon are two brothers that you've said are two sides of yourself. 

SETH:
They are. 

Debbie:
What does it mean when they're no longer continuing to live? 

SETH:
Well, you know, the funny thing is this is again complicated because it's a 20 year process. In that 20 years, I would come back and forth with them. I would be with them for a couple of months and then go away and work on other things and then come back. I think it became more abstract over time. I knew they were based on me and I had figured that out long ago. But in some sense they'd become more abstracted. They'd become characters in a book. Even though I can look at them now and see clearly exactly what life experience I'm drawing on for every aspect of them, I probably don't feel like Charles Schulz felt when he was, you know, with that last strip he wrote which was a heartbreaker. 

Debbie:
I'm just getting goosebumps now even thinking about it. Well, it is a magnificent, magnificent accomplishment. 

SETH:
Oh, well thank you. 

Debbie:
And gorgeously, gorgeously made. I have a few last questions for you, Seth. 

SETH:
Sure, sure. 

Debbie:
As I mentioned in my introduction my dear friend, Chip Kidd, was instrumental in making this interview happen. I asked him if he could what one question should I ask you, so this is from Chip. Your work is so rooted in the gentile cartoon aesthetics of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. If somehow you could live and work back then instead of now, would you choose that? 

SETH:
No. Although it's funny. There's a moments hesitation and temptation only because there is a, when we were talking about those textures of the past there is something in that period that is so appealing that I would like to at least go back and visit. The idea of just to walk around New York, for example in that period, hit the bars that were there, too. To just walk in the street and see everybody dressed like that, a world of concrete and wood and wool. You know, all the things that our world is very different from that world. 

SETH:
But, part of the reason that world is so beautiful is that it's gone. When you wander around and you see some old building somewhere, some ghost image of the past, there's something more poignant about that than the real past. The truth is, I probably, I enjoy the melancholy more than I would enjoy the reality. 

Debbie:
Well, I think that Dr. Strange got that time stone back from [Thanos 00:58:07] and gave it back to the ancient one so you might be able to snag it and go back in time for a bit. 

SETH:
Maybe I should talk to some of my Hollywood contacts. 

Debbie:
In addition to Chip, I also asked the legendary cartoonist and writer, Chris Ware, what he might ask you. My last three questions are from him and they're short. 

SETH:
Okay. 

Debbie:
First, is there any emotion that comics is not capable of expressing or transmuting? 

SETH:
I think comics is capable of any emotions. I do think I'm not. I think it would be very hard for me to convincingly portray violence or maybe even convincing sex. Those are very complex emotions and situations that would be very hard to transmit through the way I work. It's hard to say, you know, I do think comics is very effective for a lot of the subtler emotions and so as I think that through, you know, I'm not really too sure what the answer would be. I'd have to give that more thought. 

SETH:
I have such confidence in the idea that comics is a subtle medium that I have actually spent more time arguing for it than thinking about what it might not be up for. 

Debbie:
Well, you'll have to come back on the show and we'll have a good discussion about that. Or maybe you and Chris could come together. 

SETH:
Yeah, yeah, I'd be curious what Chris says about that. 

Debbie:
Second question from Chris. What is the governing overriding feeling of life itself? 

SETH:
For me, and I suspect this might be true for lots of people, it is that complex dichotomy between inside and outside. That everything that is happening outside, or appears to be, even though everything outside is actually just in your brain. It is that process of trying to interpret everything that is happening. Everything is a symbol. As we're sitting here talking you're a symbol, your expressions, your words, the colors in the room, all of it's open to interpretation and all of it is like this strange system where we're trying to figure out what everything means. 

SETH:
It is a very, it's a lonely experience to be inside a human body and not really connect with other people. But, it is, I think, for me, especially while traveling it always brings this up, how strangely abstract everything outside of you is and how you're trying to somehow make sense of it, especially through your work. 

Debbie:
Finally, the last question from Chris Ware. Do you believe in God? 

SETH:
Increasingly I wonder. I would have said when I was younger that I did not believe in God and I would have thought of myself as pretty much of a materialist. But I don't think that's true any longer. 

Debbie:
What's changed? 

SETH:
What's changed is that this world, as we were just talking about, is strange and it doesn't feel real to me. I think that there is complicated layers of reality going on, mystic experience, whatever. Anything is possible. When you start talking about say the after life, it initially starts out as sounding pretty ridiculous. Why would there be an after life? Especially, I don't worry about an after life for a cockroach after I step on it. But, this experience we're living in seems rich and complicated, again complicated, very layered and it doesn't feel like ... Surely all of this isn't for nothing. 

SETH:
This whole struggle, this complicated relationship you seem to have with reality feels like it's just a waste if there's nothing else going on beyond this. There's a great line in the film Metropolitan by Whit Stillman that I always quote. Where one of the characters says, "You know there's a God because you know someone is listening to your thoughts." I thought, that line stuck with me. I certainly don't feel like I'm having a conversation in my head with no one. 

SETH:
Now, what does God mean? That I'm not sure I have a simple answer for. 

Debbie:
Seth, thank you so much for creating such meaningful and profound work. Thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.

SETH:
Well, thank you. 

Debbie:
It has been an absolute honor to talk to you. 

SETH:
Oh, you're very kind. 

Debbie:
You can find out more about Seth and see some of his drawings in book stores and at drawnandquarterly.com. All of his books are extraordinary. You must buy his new book Clyde Fans, which is a collection of his strips and is a magnum opus. This is the 15th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.